The society we live in today has been shaped by many struggles, social movements, and revolutionary forces, most aiming to create a more egalitarian existence. Women, indigenous peoples, LGBT communities, and even animals have secured hard won recognition of their basic rights and inherent value, causing improvements to the worlds they live in. But sure, we’re still not there yet, the struggle never ends.
It’s said that one of the last major frontiers for society to tackle is acknowledging and upholding ‘disability rights’ around meaningful inclusion and accessibility for people with impairments. As a disabled person, it’s great to be living in this era right now, seeing us grow in skill and confidence to raise awareness, and to enforce our needs.
However if that’s true, then one of the last bastions within that frontier would have to be our rights and active participation in political and civic matters, which lags significantly behind our (albeit limited) progress in health, education, independent living etc.
There is a country which holds regular local and national elections, where some eligible voters are systematically subjected to a violation of that most simple of democratic standards – to cast a secret ballot. This is done under the guise that modified procedures revealing their chosen vote to others is their best/only option and for their own benefit anyway. In this same country there is a popular belief that learning disability and/or periods of mental distress renders a person ineligible, incapable, or uninterested in meeting the legal obligation to be enrolled, or the choice to cast a legitimate vote.
This is not war-torn Syria, isolationist North Korea, or even Nazi Germany of days gone by – that country is New Zealand as at 2014, and those people are blind people, and those having treatment in mental health facilities (but not charged with a crime), respectively.
Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guarantees us political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others. Having signed up to the Convention, not only is our government required to facilitate this, it is responsible to actively protect these rights from any (of its) action or inaction which diminishes them [4.1(d)/(e)]. At least the wheels are slowly but surely beginning to turn.
If the latest census statistics are any indication, then our potential to exert influence on political bodies should warrant reasonable consideration by those in search of ‘missing’ voters. Given the propensity for accidental injuries and illnesses (not to mention poverty) leading to impairments, and links between aging and disability, then to argue against any and every possible step towards our inclusion now, is to argue for your own exclusion in future.
However, what lies behind this is that political parties themselves are not unlike any other social institution grappling with whether to/how to attract or reflect the range of identity politics ‘minority group’ blocks. This puzzle now increasingly includes meeting disabled members/potential supporters’ particular needs for information in accessible formats, physically accessible meeting/gathering spaces, and diverse communication or language needs. And of course, parties are not immune from the medical, charity, religious, and inspiration-porn attitudes/paradigms found elsewhere.
Right now it seems just as difficult to affect change from within, as externally, given the pervasive effects of generations of demoralising labels, and marginalising of us in others’ eyes. It is no wonder that we very rarely see disabled people involved in parties or putting themselves forward for election into governance roles in this country.
Politicians regularly parrot our aspiration for “nothing about us, without us” back at us, even though most can not genuinely count themselves as “us”, or wouldn’t want to, probably out of fear amongst other things.
Every single party in our parliament under-represents disabled people in the number of elected MPs. Some parties don’t have any such candidates and the majority of examples in this election’s List rankings are mostly token gestures – almost at the bottom of the list. A community is only as strong as the least represented members of that community.
We must collectively and substantially raise up our own leaders willing to bring a whole new level of meaningful representation forward, alongside our valuable allies, and not settle for just any political masters imposed on us by well intentioned parties simply perpetuating the types of exclusion and discrimination in broader society which we’re working so hard to destroy.
We needn’t look farther a field than just across the Tasman to glimpse the kind of representation which awaits us in future.
Power to the people!